An economic development open house held in Port Alice Sept. 29 was standing room only.
About 60 people attended the event held in the community centre boardroom.
“I’m in shock by how many people are actually here,” said Mayor Jan Allen to the crowd, which at the end of the meeting voted to name the economic development plan “Port of Potential.”
The open house was chaired by William Trousdale and Colleen Hamilton from EcoPlan International, which has been hired to develop an economic development strategy for the community in the wake of the Neucel Specialty Cellulose Pulp Mill’s curtailment.
“I don’t know if any of you’ve heard, but the mill closed,” said Trousdale, to laughter from the room.
Trousdale said there is an opportunity “during this downtime” to formulate an economic development strategy for Port Alice.
“This isn’t the only community that’s been through a major closure,” he said.
There is no doubt, however, that the Neucel curtailment has been a big blow to Port Alice.
The mill provides 75 per cent of the Village’s tax base and over 50 per cent of the direct local jobs.
One of the first things EcoPlan has done is to create a snapshot of the local economy and the economic opportunities in the area,
The population of Port Alice has been shrinking since 1981. During the last census in 2011 there were 805 full-time residents in Port Alice. Estimates now place the population at about 500, said Hamilton.
The average age of people living in the community is also creeping up.
Port Alice has lost about 70 per cent of its students, going from 250 in 1995; to 124 students in 2004; to 35 for this school year.
Of the 591 residences in Port Alice, 217 are not the owners’ primary residence and there are 10 single family homes currently for sale with an average price of $180,000. Average sale prices have declined steadily since about 2006.
EcoPlan has been in Port Alice for about six weeks and through conversations with residents they have learned that people would like to see a sports bar, restaurants, a call centre, kayak rental and guiding company, more B&Bs, IT Services, a coffee shop, hiking tours, a taxi service, auto repair shops, tailors, property management companies, music and dance classes, and health-related businesses such as registered massage therapists and acupuncturists.
There is also a lot of interest in a medicinal marijuana facility.
Those who attended the open house were asked to consider two futures for Port Alice – one where the mill reopens and one where it doesn’t.
“This is about what the village should do regardless” of what happens at the mill, said Trousdale.
Even if the pulp mill does reopen, the community appears to still be facing change. The 100-year-old mill needs equipment upgrades and if those happen, there will be 320 to 360 employees – down from about 400; and it is likely that 50 to 75 per cent of the mill workers would likely live outside of Port Alice, and there would continue to be market-driven curtailments.
If the mill is shuttered, the village would lose 75 per cent of its tax base which would mean severe cuts to services and it is unclear if the RCMP, health centre and post office would survive.
Trousdale and Hamilton had the group participate in the discussion by using a device which recorded their responses to questions.
The majority of people in the room were between the ages of 35-64.
Fifty-two per cent said the were very committed to Port Alice and were staying no matter what.
The idea of promoting tourism has been a very controversial issue during their initial conversations, said Trousdale, who was shocked when 69 per cent of the audience responded that they would like to see their community “as open as Telegraph Cove to tourists.”
People seemed also in favour of trying to attract retirees – 51 per cent – and being open to second home owners – 58 per cent. The evening ended with small group discussions.
Trousdale told the Gazette things are going “great. Fantastic.” As of the open house “we’ve talked to over 40 people in the community. We’ve done surveys and this is just the initial step,” Trousdale said.
Next on the agenda is to gather more input and have a draft plan ready in about a month and a half and “start working on implementation.”
EcoPlan, based in Vancouver, is a multi-disciplinary firm of planners, urban designers, decision analysts and economic development specialists who have worked with governments, First Nations, the private sector, and non-profit organizations to develop and implement smart solutions to the planning challenges they face. They have been in business for 15 years.